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Turkey in the Security Council: Goals and Dilemmas INSS Insight No.

November 6, 2008
Lindenstrauss, Gallia

Turkey’s election as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council

by a considerable majority (151 out the 192 member states) reflects Turkey’s
importance in the current international system. Among the members of the European
group, Turkey was chosen alongside Austria after both overtook Iceland. The last time
Turkey was elected to the Security Council was over 40 years ago, and it appears that
the current choice also indicates international support for some of the diplomatic
bridging activity that Turkey has been involved in recently. This diplomatic bridging
suggests a unique mediating role for Turkey in conflicts in the three regions it borders:
the Middle East, the Caucasus, and the Balkans. Through this role as mediator, Turkey
attempts to prove that it need not identify with any given international party and can
maintain its good relations with the West while it increases its involvement in the
Middle East and the Caucasus. Nevertheless, in view of Turkey’s domestic problems
and the instability of certain neighboring countries, some of the issues that are expected
to appear soon on the Security Council’s agenda are liable to create some tough
dilemmas for Turkish decision makers.

Of the diplomatic initiatives recently taken by Turkey, the most prominent is the
“football diplomacy” with Armenia, which peaked with the first visit ever by a Turkish
president to Armenia, to watch the World Cup qualifying game between Armenia and
Turkey. Armenia’s demand that Turkey recognize the genocide committed against the
Armenians in 1915, and the conflict over the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, with Armenia
controlling around 15 percent of the territory of Azerbaijan, Turkey’s ally, have strained
relations between them. Moreover, the absence of diplomatic ties between Turkey and
Armenia and concern over another round of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh between
Armenia and Azerbaijan impact on the stability of the entire Caucasus region. For
example, Armenia –Russia’s ally – is wary of Turkey and of Azerbaijan and the oil
pipeline between Azerbaijan and Turkey that raverses Georgia in order to bypass
Armenia. Recent developments in Georgia underscore that players looking to block
Russia’s over-dominance in the Caucasus should also take Armenia into consideration.
Thus Turkey recently launched a plan for advancing cooperation and stability in the
Caucasus region among Russia, Turkey, and the southern Caucasus states, including

Another diplomatic initiative by Turkey, mediation in the Israel-Syria conflict, is

of particular interest since one of the elements in the strategic partnership between Israel
and Turkey that evolved in the 90s was these countries’ confrontation with Syria. Israeli
control of the Golan and the Lebanon question divide Israel and Syria. Between Turkey
and Syria there were a number of disputes based on territory and conflicts over the
division of water resources. Moreover, at the end of the nineties relations between
Turkey and Syria reached a crisis point following Syria’s patronage of elements from
the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) who carried out terror attacks on Turkish soil.
Resolution of the issue of PKK presence in Syria and the events in Iraq have helped
relations between Syria and Turkey thaw in recent years. Some claim that a new axis is
currently evolving between Turkey, Syria, and Iran based on a shared interest in the
future of Iraq. As part of Turkey’s focus on bridging, it takes pains not to present these
developments as a threat to its good relations with the United States and Israel, although
the question remains as to how much it will maintain this policy. A related factor is
Turkey's favor of the Palestinians in its mediating initiatives between Israel and the
Palestinians; this support has even increased in recent years.

Despite these and other bridging initiatives, Turkey is hard-pressed to deal with
the Kurdish problem on its own territory. Since 2007, when the Justice and
Development party was reelected with a large majority, reforms towards the Kurds were
not extended, reforms that were spearheaded by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
in his first term of office as part of Turkey’s efforts to be accepted into the European
Union (EU). Furthermore, frequent incursions by Turkish forces into Iraq in order to
chase PKK activists taking cover in northern Iraq, and Turkey’s fierce opposition to the
establishment of an independent Kurdish state damage Turkey’s attempts to present
itself as a stabilizing influence in the international arena. Although it may be assumed
that the United States will labor to prevent Security Council discussion of issues
connected to Iraq, Turkey’s large interest in Iraq will undoubtedly cause it problems, at
least vis-à-vis its dealings with the US in the Security Council, and will challenge its
potential for cooperation.

One of the issues expected to continue on the Security Council’s agenda is the
Iranian nuclear program. Turkey objected to the imposition of sanctions on Iran and
tried to mediate between Iran and the United States. Iranian cooperation in Turkey’s
fight against the PKK and reciprocal high level visits even suggest a strengthening of
ties between Turkey and Iran. On the other hand, the United States will look to Turkish
cooperation in decisions over international sanctions on Iran. The United States may
link this issue with Turkey’s requests regarding the Kurdish areas in Iraq, and possibly
even the continuation of American non-recognition of the Armenian genocide.

With regard to the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,

Turkey will almost certainly adopt a position favorable to the Arab and Palestinian sides
in the Security Council. While relations with Israel are still considered important, partly
due the support of military leaders for these ties, a number of reasons are likelyto
bring Turkey to adopt positions less comfortable for Israel. Thus, for example, support
by the Justice and Development party for Islamic principles joins Turkey’s traditional
pro-Palestinian stance. In the past, Israel accepted Turkey’s difficulties with supporting
it on issues that contradicted the Palestinian position, and one may expect Israel to
maintain this policy.

While the division into groups in the UN is not based solely on geography, there
were those who pointed out the irony of Turkey being accepted as a non-permanent
member of the Security Council as part of a European group, even though full
membership in the European Union is not guaranteed. If Turkey manages to fulfill a
constructive role in the Security Council in the next two years this may help to soften
some of the resistance to its acceptance to the EU, for example from leaders such as
French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

It seems that Turkey’s current situation and recent bridging initiatives may help
it to contribute to stability in the regions around it. Nevertheless, one can imagine
scenarios in which Turkey is faced with considerable dilemmas regarding the way it
votes in the Security Council, principally with regard to its desire to be seen as part of
Europe and the democratic Western world even though it is an Islamic state with
extensive ties to the Islamic world and key countries such as Iran and Syria. The
question is will its conduct as a non-permanent member of the Security Council be
similar to that of Austria (or Belgium and Italy, which were replaced by Turkey and
Austria) or that of Indonesia. Turkey, however, will likely do its utmost to mediate and
thereby avoid having to take sides.